Sporting Chance

By Coll, Steve | The New Yorker, August 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sporting Chance


Coll, Steve, The New Yorker


Imran Khan, who once ruled the sport of cricket from Karachi to Lord's, and whose love life was chronicled with the attention now accorded Brangelina, is in contention to rule the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Khan makes for an unusual politician--a former tabloid celebrity aspiring to negotiate with the Taliban. One Saturday morning earlier this year, at Khan's hilltop home outside Islamabad, a friend of his who has made money in British real estate, and goes by the nickname Moby, pulled into the driveway in an armored Toyota Land Cruiser. Khan emerged from the house wearing a gray shalwar kameez. He climbed into the front passenger seat and said, "My God, it's going to be a tough day."

Moby drove down a twisting road toward Pakistan's capital. At the entrance to the V.I.P. section of the Benazir Bhutto International Airport, armed police peered into the car, recognized the passenger, and saluted. Khan is rated in opinion polls as his country's most popular politician. He leads the somewhat amorphous party Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice, which he founded in 1996. It promises a crackdown on corruption, freedom from American influence, competent governance, and a more equitable economy. Khan has said that his party will dominate when the national elections are held, probably early in 2013. That forecast has the ring of an athlete's pregame boast, but, if a free vote is held, political analysts expect Khan to emerge with a significant block of seats in parliament, and it is possible that he could end up as President or Prime Minister.

Inside the V.I.P. terminal, I followed Khan as he evaded supporters and favor-seekers. "It's embarrassing walking with an entourage," Khan said, when I asked why he did not keep a bodyguard. A Beechcraft turboprop sat on the tarmac. It belonged to Jahangir Tareen, an industrialist and politician who chairs Khan's policy-planning committee. The plane lifted into a hazy sky, toward Hyderabad; Khan had agreed to appear at a rally in a remote area of southern Sindh province, near the border with India. He put on reading glasses, scanned some English-language newspapers, and fiddled with his BlackBerry. Two decades have passed since he was described in British media as the sexiest man alive. He remains thin, fit, and youthful-looking at fifty-nine. His dark hair hangs in the layered style of his halcyon days--the "lion look," as it was known, crafted by Dar, a London hairdresser.

At Oxford University in the nineteen-seventies, Khan was a contemporary of Benazir Bhutto, who became Pakistan's Prime Minister in 1988. The enigma that Khan presents recalls some of the paradoxes that she once embodied. Bhutto, who led the Pakistan Peoples Party, was the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former Prime Minister and the Party's founder. An heiress to a political dynasty, Benazir emerged from the secular left. Khan, too, is a member of his country's privileged, international elite, and claims that he can improve the lot of Pakistan's impoverished majority. Although for many years he was indifferent to Pakistani politics, he became active after his retirement from sport and a midlife recommitment to his faith. He has endorsed some of the political grievances--but not the violence--of the Pakistani Taliban, who denounced Bhutto as an infidel and assassinated her in 2007.

Khan's adversaries, including Najam Sethi, the editor of the liberal newsweekly the Friday Times, regard him as dangerously naive about the menace that Islamist radicals pose to Pakistan. In 2009, during the violent upheaval after the murder of Bhutto, the Pakistani Taliban briefly threatened to enter Islamabad. The Army attacked them, but Khan opposed the bombing of Taliban positions and urged talks with local leaders. He often declares that if he were in charge he would withdraw military forces from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a lightly governed territory along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, where the Taliban have found refuge, and engage in negotiations that would end terrorism in Pakistan within ninety days. …

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